Making Things : The Work/Life Issue

In honor of the oncoming Halloween season, I want to tell you a horror story. It’s a long one, so pull up a chair and settle in.

This was inspired by reading this story at the almighty Motionographer. (edit -I should point out, as I’m getting some traffic now from that post, that this whole diatribe isn’t directed at Ash Thorpe. These are just my own thoughts and experiences on the subject. We’re all in this together.)

In 2004 I was hired at my first animation job, at a small web startup in Altoona, PA. I know – the big time! I like to joke that neither I nor my bosses knew enough about Flash or animation to know that I had no idea what I was doing. I was playing in a ska band at age 23. My job before this was at a grocery store making $8 an hour. This new job paid little more, but it was an office job where I got to draw. Also, my office mate was a bandmate and great friend of mine. I jumped into it wholeheartedly.

Soon after I began, I was handed 2 things. The first was a video promoting some sketchy supplement that I doubt works. In fact, looking back on it now, the company’s main clients were direct-marketing scam companies. I should have been tipped off when my 4 managers all tried to recruit me to buy and sell supplements from them, promising that they’d give me some “prime contacts” that were sure to buy. The video’s concept resembled the somewhat obscure animated film Osmosis Jones that had recently been released. I was given a script and I got to work, learning Flash, the ins and outs of a Wacom tablet, and the making of things as I went. In fact, you want to see it? Yeah, you do.

I will warn you: it is hilariously, god-awful terrible. It is a master class in what not to do. I laughed out loud through most of putting this together tonight. I eliminated any mention of the company or their products, because I could totally see them suing me or something. Also, I discovered that doing so made the video about 10x funnier. Even without the product and enzyme names, you can just feel the absolute ridiculous bullshit seeping out of the screen.

  The lesson here: stay away from junk science and direct marketing.
The second lesson: Everyone sucks when they are starting out. You will improve with time.

As awful as it is, you must admit that it looks like quite a load on a complete novice. It was. I was swamped. It took me something like 5 or 6 weeks to make it, working 60 hours a week. Yes, you read that correctly. The reason for the long hours was the second thing – the company was launching an internet service, and we were all being asked to work 1/4 more hours (it was a 45 hour work week there normally) in order to get the service out by some trade show somewhere. 6 to 6. We would not be paid for these extra hours, but instead would have shares in the profits that would surely come rolling in. The math was this – there’s a lot of people on the internet, and we only need like 1% of them to sign up for us all to be super rich. In my 23 year old head, that made sense. I was also dirt poor and was planning on proposing to my then girlfriend/now wife. I needed money and thought to myself that I was being very responsible, sacrificing now for gain in the years ahead.

I was also homeless at the time. I was crashing at a bandmate’s house or my girlfriend’s apartment and living out of my tiny red car. Bethany lived 90 minutes away from my work, and my bandmate lived 45 minutes away. I was doing a lot of driving. A typical day saw me wake up at Bethany’s apartment at 4am, and drive to work. I would show up around 8 that evening. We’d hang out and then I’d be asleep by 10 or 11. Rinse and repeat. Staying at my bandmate’s house was a little better, but not much. I slept in my car some nights. I barely remember that summer and fall. The road I had to take was a potentially treacherous highway through the mountains of Western PA. I was so exhausted all of the time that I would be honestly half awake, desperate to get to a bed or couch. I got a ticket for going 95 miles an hour down a mountain. It was expensive. To be honest, I was half asleep, the sun in my eyes. To this day I can’t say how I didn’t die that year. I gained a lot of weight, mostly from junk food and coffee. I started getting light-headed and seeing lights. I developed an ulcer that still bothers me from time to time. I got several more tickets and had some near misses when I fell asleep at the wheel. It was the worst time of my life, hands down. I lost the better part of a year and nearly killed myself, and for what?

Incidentally, that studio closed down the next year due to massive errors on the part of the managers and owners. But that’s another, more bizarre and entertaining story. Ask me sometime.

Years later I made a similar mistake at my next studio job. Again, I was afraid of being broke and of losing the job before I had it. The first day there I was asked to stay late. I did. And I did it for the next 3 weeks. I worked every day of the next month, including weekends. I worked 48 hour shifts with no sleep. I was exhausted. I gained more weight. I began to get migraines. My bosses kept telling me that this is how it is in “the industry”. And while I knew that they were full of shit, I was afraid. So I kept going. Eventually I had an emotional breakdown during my 40 minute commute home and almost wrapped my car around another guardrail. I kept telling myself that things would calm down, that the requests for extensive overtime would pass. They did not. And so I finally told them that I wouldn’t be staying late anymore. Such talk was initially rebuffed, until I started leaving at 6 when my day officially ended. I started giving project estimates that matched actual work days. I started being a bit firmer about it. And you know what? Other employees started doing the same. And the bosses learned.

Incidentally, that studio also closed down the next year due to massive errors on the part of the managers and owners. But that’s yet another, more bizarre and entertaining story. Ask me sometime.

In early 2010 I was doing a freelance gig at a local studio. Nice place, treated me wonderfully and paid well. It was across the river in Downtown Pittsburgh, which is an expensive nightmare for parking. I thought it would be a good idea to just make the 45 minute walk instead of driving. The first week was great, and then the requests to stay late began. And I complied. I was worried about our finances, and I knew that I needed a new computer as my trusty workstation was dying. If I just powered through, I could take care of bills and still afford a new computer. I worked on the project for 20 days. In the final week, I slept 2 hours a night on the studio couch and stayed up all night the final 2 days. My wife walked down to meet me for a nice spring walk home on the final afternoon. I was in the overdriven underslept hyper mode you get into when you are extremely fatigued. We began our walk home and everything was going fine until about the halfway mark, when we began to cross the 10th Street Bridge. From this point on I have no memory aside from a sudden splitting headache and some hazy visions of lights. Everything that happened afterward I have from my wife’s account. I stopped walking on the bridge and stared at the water, forgetting where I was. Bethany took my hand and guided me a long. When we had to cross a busy street during rush hour, I apparently began to walk into traffic, saying that I could just walk down the yellow line between the cars. Bethany ran out and pulled me back. Later, I stopped at a building and began talking about the pigeons on the roof (they are my favorite bird) before walking off of the curb again. When we reached our apartment, I forgot where I was and what I was doing again and she had to convince me that this was indeed my house and I had to walk upstairs. I complained that I was too tired and really needed to go to bed. She finally got me upstairs and into bed, where I awoke 16 hours or so later.

I was pretty sick for about a week after that. When I was feeling better, we went for a walk around the neighborhood for some fresh air. I stopped by Commonwealth Press to see my friend Dan. He told me that I looked awful and asked what was going on. I told him about my ordeal at the freelance gig. I told him how it was terrible that they asked me to work so many hours and how hard and unfair it was. Dan just looked at me and said “Well, why didn’t you just tell them no? Isn’t it your responsibility to set those boundaries?”. He has a talent for being direct. I sputtered. I had expected sympathy. I was kind of annoyed, to be honest. But he was right. I had all of the control in the situation. I chose to work those hours. I chose not to negotiate better terms or a more realistic timeline for the project. When it got out of control, I shouldered all of it and it nearly killed me, or at least nearly did me great harm. Dan was right.

In the end, I can tell you stories about terrible clients, horrible bosses and awful jobs. I have endless stories you wouldn’t believe. Really. Just insane people. But I agreed to their unreasonable demands. I did it because I was afraid- afraid of being broke, afraid that they’d replace me, afraid that I wasn’t good enough to warrant guidelines, afraid I would get some sort of reputation for being difficult, afraid of letting people down. It’s that fear that makes people shells of themselves by 30. It’s that fear that kills young, creative people with car accidents and heart attacks. It’s the same fear that keeps workers the world over in terrible conditions.

It’s true that in a lot of work situations, especially ones as fluid and user-unfriendly as those in the creative industries, you really have no control. There are clients who will ask or flat-out demand that you do ridiculous things. And if you refuse, there is a line of hungry people behind you ready to do those things. In those situations, you have to take control. You have to be willing to walk away. You have to be willing to say no. No one can make you do anything. That sounds silly, but it’s true. You decide to work in the conditions in which you work. You’re not a sweatshop worker in a 3rd world country with no other sources of income. You really aren’t. You are not trapped. You have the ability to choose, to improvise, to be flexible, to say no.

Another downside to doing ridiculous, self-harmful things for clients is that over time it teaches them that this is normal. We see this all the time in creative industries. Why pay someone a living wage if you can pay a recent grad peanuts, knowing that if they refuse there’s always a line up behind them? Why pay a designer for their time when you can simply crowdsource your logo and pick from the dozens of applicants who have just done free work for you? Why schedule projects so that your workers can see their families and live lives, when you know that there will always be someone like me in 2008, who was at the office every day for a month? Why stop taking if people keep giving?

You have to take control in the only way you can. You can’t control the actions of others, but you can control your own. After that scary walk home in early 2010, I made decisions. I began using contracts. I set a hard day rate. I learned to say no. I set boundaries of time. I set expectations. And I worked like hell to be worth it. And you know what? I’m still here, still working, and happy. Do things still get crazy sometimes? Do I occasionally overbook or overcommit? Sure, I’m human. But those times are the exceptions and they are always on terms I agree to. I’ve had some wonderful, professional, respectful clients. I’ll be honest – I’m not a super wealthy guy. My wife and I live simply, but we live well. I don’t have an iPad, but I did preorder Dark Souls and will do the same for Skyrim later this year.. I don’t have a crazy car, but I do rock a sweet PT Cruiser that is every bit the luxury car I could want. I don’t have a snazzy DSLR, but my I have a decent point-and-shoot and know how to use Photoshop. We’re not foodies like many of our friends, but we eat well and I make a great homemade pizza. My wife makes bread that is cheaper and 100x better than store bought. We didn’t buy some hip breed of dog, but we do have the greatest domesticated spawn of a barn cat money can’t buy. Our apartment isn’t huge, but it’s in a lovely neighborhood. We get by, and we do it well. And I actually see my family. We won’t be here forever, and I don’t want to sell that time away.

Setting boundaries means you have to become more creative, and work even harder. Because if clients can’t get you as cheaply and can’t expect you to work 60 hour weeks, you have to be worth it. You may not be able to live that fabled lifestyle of the hip, wealthy designer, partying at swanky clubs, living in your big downtown apartment, driving cool cars and buying all of the latest stuff Apple pops out this month. But you will be able to live, have relationships, and be happy on your own terms. And after a certain point, all of that other stuff becomes much less important to you anyway.

But, of course, that may not be your thing. You may want the 80 hour weeks. You may wear the circles under your eyes and the heart palpitations as some sort of badge. You may love telling stories about how crazy you are and how this is what the industry is like, brah. Godspeed. I hope you remain healthy and happy. I, however, will be working as well – and also hanging out with friends, being reasonably prolific in making my own stuff, petting my cat and taking long walks with my wife. I just think it’s better for me this way. Your results may vary.

PS – Some notes on the cartoon I posted above: You may detect a slight authoritarian/quasi-racist vibe in the Joe’s body sequences. This isn’t all that strange, as the company was run by right wing separatists. They were part of a group that was going to get a bunch of people to move to South Carolina and secede. It was a bizarre year. The air was so thick with it that I honestly didn’t pick up the comparatively subtle undertones in the cartoon until a year or so later. So awful. Seriously, feel free to mock and ridicule that short as much as you like. I’ll join right in.

Oh, what, you want MORE discussion of this topic? Well, you are in luck!

15 comments

  • 09/24/2011 at 6:41 am // Reply

    Oh wow. I just found your blog through art-sponge, really just captivated by the Murf vid and wanted more! But this post is truly inspiring, as a 23 y/o in my first studio role I definitely think about the work/life/future issue a lot… and this is a really useful insight. Cheers!

  • 09/24/2011 at 12:11 pm // Reply

    "We won't be here forever, and I don't want to sell that time away."

    I love that.

  • 09/24/2011 at 3:00 pm // Reply

    Good words my friend.

  • 09/24/2011 at 4:24 pm // Reply

    Your story breaks my heart and yet instills even more pride in you my son and wonderful daughter.

  • 09/24/2011 at 6:05 pm // Reply

    Don't worry, Mom. It's cool.

  • 09/26/2011 at 1:25 pm // Reply

    Champion post sir. This is a fantastic chronicle of what true hell many "studios" create for their workers.

  • 09/27/2011 at 6:53 am // Reply

    Sounds a lot like the beauty industry, sadly.. I've worked hours like that for salons before. Learning to say no is one of the best tools you can have in life.

    I really appreciate how you write about where you came from. I feel like I'm currently in the phase of making terrible art, and trying to work through that.

    Video was hilarious. Especially with the names bleeped out.

  • 09/28/2011 at 12:00 pm // Reply

    Solid thinking. I worked at a place that demanded as much as 65-70 hour work weeks for 11 years. I gained a lot of knowledge, but I also gained a lot of weight. Physically and mentally unhealthy.

    I freelanced for a bit then switched to a company that respects my time and my family so much more. It's great! The company life has it's disadvantages too, but it works for now.

    Glad to read your posts. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and processes. Inspiring!!! Go YOU, go!

  • 09/29/2011 at 4:37 pm // Reply

    I am glad to read your story after the one of Ash. You're balancing the conversation.
    And your work, though different, is as good as the work from Ash.

  • 10/04/2011 at 2:22 am // Reply

    This story touched me, on the one hand it`s sad to see that things are not that different elsewhere on the planet (I`m in Europe) but it`s also taking the burden off my shoulders a bit that "it`s" not my fault – because a couple of times me and the facility split for good after jobs crossed "the line". Even worse, the jobs went really good, won ADC and BDA awards, but nonetheless, they were awaiting your soul in exchange for their money.

  • 10/04/2011 at 2:25 am // Reply

    p.s.: I don`t want to bash that guy, ash, whose story led me here, but actually your view is more honest and human, whereas his feels like that one of a apple nerd – feed them whatever you want, they`ll never complain…

  • 10/04/2011 at 6:40 am // Reply

    I certainly don't want to make any assumptions about the kind of guy Ash is (other than an extremely talented and hard-working one). My experiences, mistakes and lesson-learnings were my own.

    I hope this post has turned out to be helpful, thought provoking or just amusing for all of you. Thanks for all of the kind words and fantastic correspondence! It's very cool to be a part of the discussion of this difficult and nuanced topic, and I look forward to continuing that discussion.

  • 10/04/2011 at 11:26 am // Reply

    Wow. This is exactly how I feel. Can't thank you enough for this post. I would LOVE to buy you a beer some time.

  • 11/01/2012 at 2:50 pm // Reply

    Thank you so much for for writing such an honest post. As another animator from the Rust-Belt going through similar things it’s good to have similar stories to relate to. I’ve actually been reading the last several paragraphs of this post over and over the last few days, and it’s been a great motivator for picking myself up, dusting myself, and putting my putting myself on the track to better things. Thank you for your insights and your amazing and inspirational work. I’m a fan.

  • 08/21/2013 at 4:07 pm // Reply

    Thank you for your knowledge. Especially in “Indecent Exposure.” I’ll be much more careful thanks to you.

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